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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Meet the Voice Actors Fighting for Accessibility On and Behind the Screen

Accessibility impacts more than disabled players. Options in games like God of War Ragnarök and Street Fighter 6 help lessen unintentional barriers, introducing newcomers to previously inaccessible franchises and allowing others to join new communities. And accessible design innovations, awareness, and accommodations help create games we can all enjoy.

Accessibility is equally important in the industry workspace. While it’s great to buy a game for your Xbox or PlayStation and find dozens of accessibility features, disabled employees need systematic support to bring characters to life. Disabled voice actors shared with WIRED the ways their disabilities impact their work, and the importance of an inclusive industry.

Sara Secora

Voice actress, voice-over director, and casting director Sara Secora has racked up a range of credits in AAA and indie games. From roles like Mathila in Warframe to Dunyarzad in Genshin Impact and Esther Winchester in Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course, Secora’s work crosses genres. But without accessibility accommodations, these performances would not have been possible.

“I have an invisible disability—which makes it almost harder sometimes because people invalidate that—but my disabilities are agoraphobia and panic disorder,” Secora says. “Being in the Detroit area, when all the hubs of the world for voice-over are in New York, LA, even Texas, I’m so far from it. And before the pandemic, everyone said you just had to live in those locations to do this job. I can’t. I can’t even travel there.”

Secora’s disabilities began to affect her approximately two decades ago, and the accessibility tools and accommodations she requires have been crucial to her success. While the pandemic brought tremendous challenges, it also ushered in a time of increased accessibility for many disabled individuals. For approximately three years, companies actively encouraged—and occasionally required—employees to perform their duties outside of the office. Remote work became standard, which created new opportunities for some disabled people. Now many studios are reversing their pandemic policies, and Secora fears these decisions will negatively impact herself and others.

“Before the pandemic, AAA studios weren’t as interested in working with me because they were like ‘Why won’t you come here? We need you here,’” she says. “When the pandemic happened, that started to go away for a period of time.” She says some studios are now reverting to that mindset. “It’s really disheartening because there is nothing I can do. Without accessibility, I worry this is going to go back to the old ways where everybody must be physically there, in which case I just won’t work again.”

Secora’s disabilities require a work environment that meets her needs while allowing her to do her job. Her home has much of the equipment available in studios, and as her portfolio continues to expand, she is aware how essential it is for studios to regularly offer remote work as an alternative for voice actors. And she isn’t alone in this need.

Christina Assaf-Costello

With credits in games like Genshin Impact, Path to Nowhere, and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, voice actor and production manager Christina Assaf-Costello relies on the availability of remote work. With disabilities like congenital pulmonary lymphangestia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and endometriosis, Assaf-Costello needs to remain in close proximity to her medical team. When studios shifted to remote work, her career—like Secora’s—began to grow.

“I tell people that I’m basically doing this on ‘hard mode,’ in all honesty,” Assaf-Costello says. “I originally pursued on-camera work, and it was so hard on my body I couldn’t keep up. Eventually, when the pandemic hit, it opened voice-over to remote, which allowed me to get my foot in the door. For myself, my medical team is in Boston, so I’m unable to move to a big hub right now. The position I’m in is basically hoping that companies are willing to do remote for me or traveling as jobs need me to.”

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Assaf-Costello’s relationship with remote work is intrinsically tied to the studios that employ her. While she acknowledges that many are understanding of her situation, she also recognizes the need for protections to guarantee that accessibility becomes standard for herself and her colleagues. Some developers rely on big Hollywood actors to fill voice roles so their names can be used to market projects, which highlights the limitations of the current system. It’s not enough for studios to offer location alternatives to voice talent, Assaf-Costello says, they also need to normalize the hiring of disabled actors.

“While Hollywood actors are trained actors, some of them don’t have experience in voice-over,” she says. “This is something specialized, and we’ve all spent a long time perfecting our craft. For accessibility purposes, often those of us who are disabled aren’t getting these big opportunities from Hollywood, so it feels like if they stick with casting who they know, we won’t have a turn, so to speak. I think there just needs to be a balance of new and well-known, in my opinion, so that everyone is getting these opportunities and the playing field is leveled.”

Beyond giving disabled voice actors more roles in games, it’s also important to have disabled individuals voice disabled characters. Assaf-Costello brought Collei—a disabled character from Genshin Impact—to life, and it’s through her lived experiences that she was able to resonate with the character. Thankfully, work to diversify games with disabled voice actors is a collaborative effort.

Isabella “Izzy” Tugman

Voice-over artist, actor, singer, and film producer Isabella Tugman has had roles in mobile games like GnollHack and Marvel Snap, as well as appearances in podcasts and animated shows. Without accessibility offerings, like remote work, Tugman could not do her jobs, nor could she raise awareness about the importance of hiring disabled voice actors. But through support from others in the space, Tugman is now able to work full-time.

“When I was really sick several years ago, I had to take a lot of naps and struggled to get through more than a couple hours of being up and about,” Tugman says. “Taking care of your health when you have a condition is like managing an additional full-time job on top of all of life’s other responsibilities. It’s expensive, stressful, painful, exhausting, and time-consuming. Remote work is a huge advantage for voice actors with disabilities. It allows us the resources, comfort, and flexibility we need to do our best work. In this day and age, we can have top-notch recording studios at home with no real need to come into a studio.”

Like Secora and Assaf-Costello, Tugman notes that the pandemic demonstrated the overall importance of accommodations like remote working arrangements—and how successful they can be. But only through consistent conversations with studios can this option become permanent. And in an industry that includes hundreds, if not thousands, of voice actors, limiting roles to in-house talent prevents new actors from showcasing their skills.

“I’m happy to say there is a disabled voice actors database for casting directors to pull from,” she says. “It meant a lot to me that I was recently sent an audition for an audiobook where the protagonist was a little girl struggling with chronic illness. I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a young teen, and I would have felt more seen and understood to have a book like that back then. I was honored to know that the casting directors recognized that I could bring my own personal experience to the telling of that story. The power of storytelling is what I’m most passionate about in life, and it’s an incredible tool to help us as humans connect and empathize with each other and hear from voices that have often been silenced.”

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Opportunities for disabled individuals to access a range of mediums and careers also depend on the availability of tools and work options, such as extensions on assignments, inclusive design practices in games, and remote work options. Disabled people cannot thrive in a society that doesn’t care for them the way it cares for others. The careers of Sara Secora and other disabled actors are proof that work alternatives can succeed. For now, Secora looks forward to more conversations with studios and fellow actors and hopes that as the world attempts to return to pre-pandemic routines, policies like remote work can remain.

“I would not have a career if not for remote work,” Secora says. “I’ve done this for 10 years as of next year, and I would not have made a single dollar or worked on any project if not for remote. Remote has been something that was accessible and viable before the pandemic. The pandemic just pushed it into action and proved it can work.”

WIRED has teamed up with Jobbio to create WIRED Hired, a dedicated career marketplace for WIRED readers. Companies who want to advertise their jobs can visit WIRED Hired to post open roles, while anyone can search and apply for thousands of career opportunities. Jobbio is not involved with this story or any editorial content.

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